Shanna Peeples

Celebrating a Decade of National Teachers of the Year

Want to be immortal? Be a teacher. Consider the legacies of Socrates, Confucius, Plato, Anne Sullivan, or Maria Montessori — educators who literally changed history.

Cut from this same noble cloth are the panelists featured in SXSW EDU’s “A Decade of National Teachers of the Year.” This session will honor 10 years of NTOTY award recipients who have been selected annually by the Council of Chief State School’s Officers. It also happens to coincide with the 10th anniversary of SXSW EDU itself.

As panel moderator and 2015 NTOTY recipient Shanna Peeples sees it, “Teaching is one of the most important legacies we can leave for our communities. As Andy Rooney used to say, ‘Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.’ The work of teaching and learning is immensely important when viewed through the lives we influence.”

Peeples, a former English teacher in Amarillo, Texas, and a doctoral candidate in Education Leadership at Harvard, notes that much has changed in 10 years — from technology in the classroom to the ditching of the federal “No Child Left Behind” policies to the emergence of trauma-sensitive teaching. Peeples is also encouraged by the current whole-child movement.

“Our awareness that academic skills alone aren’t enough to help our students succeed is one of the most profound changes in our educational system.”

“Our awareness that academic skills alone aren’t enough to help our students succeed is one of the most profound changes in our educational system,” she says. “Part of that, I believe, comes from the willingness to listen to educators who’ve raised the alarm about over-testing, and the need for increased attention to student wellness, both in physical and mental health — especially for students living in poverty.”

Fellow panelist Sarah Brown Wessling (2010 NTOTY), a high school teacher in Johnston, Iowa, also thinks this holistic approach is timely, and necessary. “Educators continue to talk about making sure their students are safe — physically, intellectually, emotionally. We know our instruction must be trauma-informed, and that we must continue to teach the whole child.”

She also believes the introduction of the Common Core State Standards initiative in 2010 has shaped national dialogue in a big way: “Certainly the impact of the Common Core has had widespread implications throughout education. Whether states embraced them or not, the creation of the CCSS created a series of conversations and work that have had deep implications in the way schools think about instruction and assessment, especially around the role of standards.”

Major changes have also taken place outside of the classroom recently as teachers have staged walk-outs and strikes against low wages and underfunded school districts. To Peeples, the #RedForEd movement of 2018-19, which saw walk-outs or strikes in cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, as well as on statewide levels in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina, was a game-changer — “Thanks to the teachers who decided to walk out to bring attention to deep systemic problems in our schools, I think we’ll see improving conditions for all the folks in the school building … ”

Back inside the classroom, one of the biggest challenges for everyone, Peeples says, “is the challenge of managing our attention, and I think this will only grow.”

“Some futurists have suggested that the ability to maintain focus will be a desired trait in hiring,” she continues. “And that its opposite, distractibility, will be seen as as dangerous as smoking or being overweight! As educators, that’s something we should consider as we think about what students need to know and be able to do — how can we help our students strengthen their attention muscles?”

At school as in life, students have to be able to concentrate on a task or topic without being drawn to grab their cellphones. “There’s no doubt that distractibility is an issue that appears to only be getting more pervasive all the time,” says Wessling.

As for the temptation to check one’s phone during class, she says, “I opt for conversations about when and how to put it away. We talk about fighting past that ‘itch’ of wanting to get it out.”

However, she also sees potential teaching moments — “Other times I take it as an instructional design challenge. How can the cell phones become part of the learning? How can I design an experience that motivates students to engage instead of disengage? If we equate disengagement with lack of compliance, we may be overlooking all the ways students are still curious, still action-minded, still passionate, still motivated. And we are being challenged to create spaces for those qualities to flourish.”

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